By Dan Haley
Can't Oak Park ever do something simple? Can't we ever take the less expensive option? Can't we take the admirable, even essential, goal of collaboration between our units of local government and accomplish it without spending $6-10 million in taxpayer dollars?
Because on Monday night, after months of private (I might go so far as saying secret) discussions, the park district, the elementary schools and the village government unfurled the most expensive, most illogical concept to accomplish the admirable goal of combining the parks and the elementary schools into a single headquarters building.
The elected boards of the parks and the schools want to build a brand new building, and they want to build it on the parking lot at village hall.
Has anyone else noticed that Madison Street is empty? As in vacant? Do we recall that of that vacant land the village government holds the deed to multiple parcels? Oak Park and Madison and the old Volvo dealership come to mind. Then there are the three buildings that the parks and the schools already own on Madison Street.
So the street is empty and the decision is made to pile a new building onto the already inadequate parking lot at village hall. Because we want to create a new parking mess? Because village hall, nestled in a residential neighborhood, needs more traffic? Because we want to pay for an underground parking facility when there have been vacant lots and empty foreclosed houses available a block on either side of village hall for several years? And what happens to the current underground parking used by the police department?
I am totally supportive of the parks and the schools sharing a facility. Makes all kinds of sense. The current school admin building has been a wreck since the district hurriedly bought it in the 1970s. I like the idea of congregating local governments on Madison's east end. Makes the same good sense it made in the mid-'70s when Oak Park moved its village hall from Lake and Euclid to the fragile east end of the village. The east side of the village is healthy, but the east end of Madison remains fragile with its collection of wig shops.
So instead of moving the schools into the parks headquarters — remember the gymnastics center is moving out of the headquarters, remember the building and grounds department is moving out of the headquarters — that building has now been deemed as too old. Seems to me that building was renovated from a decrepit auto repainting franchise into the park headquarters just 25 years ago. With up to $3 million already set aside by the park board and the schools to renovate and combine, how "too old" can the park building be?
The alleged upside to building on the village hall parking lot is that the current parks and the schools headquarters can both be sold and put back onto the tax rolls. Whose rich fantasy is that? Just what Madison Street needs, more retail inventory!
The only thing I like about this plan is that the District 97 warehouse moves into the overlarge and still brand new village public works garage on South Boulevard. Might have been a conversation they had before they built that $30 million structure but still a good outcome.
All sides say that Monday's grand unveiling is just the starting point for a public discussion. Can't wait to hear this discussion among local taxpayers who are swimming in their tax bills, bills that were enlarged by generous referendum votes in recent years for both the parks and the schools.
I don't think that a new $6-10 million headquarters is what voters had in mind.